Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez is back for a fourth series of Shetland, the detective drama based on the novels of crime writer Ann Cleeves. In the early days they told a story over two episodes, but in the last series and now in this one, all six episodes are devoted to a single story. This helps to keep down the unfeasibly high death toll in the fictional Shetland, which boasts an annual homicide per capita rate to rival Midsomer Norton. The real Shetland has a population of only 25,000 – and the kind of weather that makes you want to put off killing anyone until it clears up a bit.
The murder that concerns us at the start of the first episode is decades old: Lizzie Kilmuir’s body was found in a disused lime kiln on Unst and the man who has been in prison for her murder since 1993, Thomas Malone, has just been released after DNA evidence pointing to another assailant led to the declaration of a mistrial.
Perez (Douglas Henshall) is obliged to reopen the case. At first, it appears pretty tidy – Malone confessed and the former lead investigator remains convinced of his guilt: “He did it, Jimmy, I swear on my wife’s grave.” But there is something about a gap in the old interview tape that bothers Perez, because he writes ‘WHAT HAPPENED IN THE PAUSE!’ in big letters in his notebook after listening to it.
Malone, meanwhile, returns to Shetland immediately, which seems a terrible idea; he has very few well-wishers up that way. “I should never ’a come back here,” he says, within hours of arriving.
Only Kilmuir’s twin sister Kate is sympathetic to his protestations of innocence. Stomping around the island with an obsolete set of headphones over his ears, Malone runs across a folk festival that appears to be taking place in a gale-force wind. Unfortunately for him, one of the attendees is the daughter of the senior investigating officer who put him away – and she will soon turn up dead in a different lime kiln.
Shetland shares a lot of the spare, bleak beauty of Scandinavian noir – even when the sun shines, the characters seek out shadows in which to hold conversations. The landscape is rendered in subtle tones of blue, green and grey, but the moral universe is a little more black and white: Perez is unimpeachably forthright, radiating world-weary honesty. Stephen Walters is great as the embittered Malone – even his beard seems angry. It is a little early to exonerate him, but I think it is unlikely he committed both murders. The second victim was a journalist investigating health and safety violations at an offshore oil concern called Forst Energy (or Forced Energy, as I misheard it). It is just possible that corporate malfeasance is the real bad guy here.
DI Perez also has trouble at home – his stepdaughter Cassie has returned from the mainland after a relationship ended badly and he shares the burden of her heartbreak with Cassie’s biological father (Mark Bonnar). Back at the office, his loyal colleague Tosh (Alison O’Donnell), still recovering from a sexual assault in the previous series, is considering, and reconsidering, a transfer to Edinburgh.
Shetland is a hugely successful export; it is shown in the US, Australia, Canada and across Europe, including all the Scandi-noir countries. It is easy to see why: it is solidly constructed, dark when it needs to be and full of odd little touches. I was particularly struck by the time given to a slightly Partridge-esque DJ interviewing Malone on local radio. “When you went to prison, Bill Clinton was president,” he says, “and a pint of milk cost 49p”. It certainly had the dull ring of the actual. Shetland is never afraid to be understated.
And one of its chief pleasures cannot be overstated: it looks stunning. Even the crime scenes are picturesque. It is probably not designed to make you think about moving to Shetland, but it still has that effect. All those bodies piling up over the last five years, yet it is still driving traffic to the tourist board’s website. I certainly had a look. The folk festival is in May, by the way. Dress warm.
As far as series four is concerned, we are only just getting started, but it is proceeding as you might expect, with Henshall to the fore, exuding a quiet power, and not a drop of forced energy.